School Choice & Charters

Pa. School Changes Stance, Will Admit Students With HIV

By Sean Cavanagh — August 09, 2012 3 min read
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The teenager known as “Abraham Smith” will be allowed to attend the Milton Hershey School, if he so chooses.

The student who goes by that alias in court documents had been denied admission to the private school in Pennsylvania because he had HIV, a condition that officials there argued is a communicable disease that poses a risk to the health of other students. The family of the student, whose lawyer says he is now 14, sued in federal court, saying the policy at the school, which serves economically and socially disadvantaged students, violated the federal Americans With Disabilities Act, and that Smith deserved to be admitted.

The school had contended in court documents that admitting Smith posed a “direct threat” to the “health and safety of others at the school,” according to court filings. They said their primary concern had been the transmission of the disease through unprotected consensual sex with other students. “This was not an easy decision,” school officials stated.

Students at the school, located in Hershey, Pa., live in on-campus homes with 10-12 other students, seven days a week, 24 hours a day. Milton Hershey official argued that their experience running the school indicated that “no child consistently makes responsible decisions which consider and protect the well-being of others.”

But this week, Milton Hershey’s president, Anthony Colistra, issued a statement saying that the school, which opened more than a century ago and serves nearly 1,800 students from needy backgrounds, had changed its stance and would enroll students with HIV, including Smith.

Colistra said that he had recently spoken with U.S. Department of Justice officials, who made it clear they disagreed with “how we evaluated the risks and applied the law.”

“Although we believed that our decisions regarding Abraham Smith’s application were appropriate,” Colistra said in his statement, “we acknowledge that the application of federal law to our unique residential setting was a novel and difficult issue.”

The Milton Hershey official added: “I publicly extend a heartfelt apology to him and to his family for the impact of our initial decision...We hope to welcome this young man to our school family in the future.”

The student’s family had cited research and documents from sources such as the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the National Association of State Boards of Education stating that the presence of a person who has an HIV infection or who has been diagnosed with AIDS poses no significant risk to students in school or athletic settings, and there have been no known cases of HIV transmission in those settings.

The student at the heart of the dispute, described as an honor roll member and athlete who is entering 9th grade, hasn’t yet decided whether to accept the school’s offer, said Ronda Goldfein, the lawyer representing him.

“He was really enchanted with the school—it’s a great place,” Goldfein said in an interview. But the teenager is also struggling to overcome the argument, exacerbated by the dispute, that he “would be too dangerous [to be in contact with the school’s] whole student body...That’s a lot to put behind you.”

Goldfein works for the AIDS Law Project of Pennsylvania, a nonprofit law firm that offers legal assistance to individuals with HIV/AIDS. The student’s legal case will continue, she said. It’s possible that the teenager’s family could seek monetary compensation from the school, Goldfein said, though she said there were also broader issues at stake. She said it was important to ensure that the school would follow through on its statement to admit HIV-positive students, and treat them fairly, and that other schools around the country get that message.

The student “thinks about things deeply,” Goldfein said. “He’s trying to do a self-assessment” of the situation.

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A version of this news article first appeared in the Charters & Choice blog.